Chris Letchford Ascends To New Heights With The Axe-Fx II
Article and Photos by Michael French
Chris Letchford is the lead guitarist and songwriter for the instrumental band Scale The Summit. Putting his Axe-Fx II to great use, Chris creates a landscape of lush, clean textures that sit beautifully either on their own or up against some heavy rhythmic pummeling. But whatever the intensity, things are always kept highly melodic and sonically beautiful. Chris maintains a high attention to detail with his music as well as the presentation of the sound of Scale The Summit as we learned when we got a chance to speak to him during their latest tour.
Watch Chris play "Atlas Novus" from The Migration:
You've been a Fractal artist for a while now, starting with the Axe-Fx Ultra prior to moving to the Axe-Fx II. How were you introduced to Fractal and the Axe-Fx?
It was through Dweezil Zappa actually. We toured with Dream Theater and Dweezil in 2009 and Dweezil was heavy into the Axe-Fx at the time - I hadn't heard of it at that point. I was amazed with the extensive sounds that Dweezil was getting out of it, and he was such a big advocate of the unit and of Fractal. Dweezil was introducing John Petrucci to the Axe-Fx on that whole tour - I was sold on it then. The next tour we did was with Between The Buried And Me, Cynic, and Devin Townsend. Devin's another wiz on the Axe-Fx and he got me in touch with Matt Picone. So I got an Ultra right before recording The Collective but only had time to use it for a few atmospheric patches on that record. I had moved to the II before recording the new record.
And you're using the Axe-Fx II live as well. What's the rundown of your live rig?
We've run things a couple different ways on different tours. Sometimes we put the Axe-Fx direct to front-of-house and use monitor wedges on stage. On some smaller stages where the crowd up front ends up behind the PA, we run stereo direct lines to the front of house and also run out to power amp and cabs for stage volume.
How are you using the Axe-Fx II in the studio?
The Axe-Fx II is all over our new album, The Migration. After the prior record, The Collective, I made patches on the Ultra for all of the amps we used in the studio, and have now dialed them in on the Axe-Fx II. While I didn't use the tone match feature of the II, it's so easy on the II to manually tone-match with your ear, so I dialed in the tones and EQ based on recordings of the raw guitar tracks. I don't even know how many patches I wrote for the new album - a ton. We explored a lot more with a lot of different types of delays, auto-swells, and things like that. Even getting out of the studio, I'm always still tweaking my sounds - they evolve over time. But that's the beauty of the Axe-Fx: instead of changing out your physical amp head and cabinet, you just spin the dial and try out a new amp sound.
What are your favorite amp models in the Axe-Fx II at the moment?
For cleans, I started out using the Deluxe Verb, and have since moved on to the USA Cleans on this album and now live as well. For rhythm I'm using the Spawn Q-Rod 1st, and for leads I'm using the Spawn Q-Rod 2nd. For cabinets, I like the 2x12 models for cleans and Recto V30 IRs for distorted tones.
The effect sounds on the new album are really amazing - how did you create some of those treatments?
It's really a mix of the multi-tap with a delay. For instance, we have a patch for our song "Whales" off of The Collective that sounds like Orca whales underwater, and it's a combination of reverb and multi-tap delay with compression to keep the attack out and then some auto-volume control. I perfected that patch a little more on this record to get the delay more controllable. On the ending of "Atlas Novus" I'm using a multi-tap delay that has a machine-gun effect where the delays are bouncing off of each other. There are 4 different delays set up in 4 different time signatures. I'll be sharing some of these patches like the ones from "Atlas Novus" so that you can see exactly how I put them together.
Did you print the effects from the Axe-Fx on the album?
Yes - all the delays and atmospheric sounds your hear on the album are straight from the Axe-Fx II - it's all in the patch. They're not put on during the mix with plug-ins. The effects in the Axe-Fx are stellar.
I think I hear the W@rped Vinyl preset (#109) at the opening of "The Traveler" - did you use that one?
Yes! I tweaked a bit to make it work for me - changed the amp, and modified the pops a bit, but it's a really cool sound. We're playing that song on the tour so I'm playing that part live like the record and fans are asking about it all the time.
Watch Chris play "The Dark Horse" from The Migration:
What's your approach to dialing in tones?
I usually start with everything in the middle, maybe bass below 12 o'clock, and go from there. I dial in the bare minimum amount of gain once the cymbals and both guitars are locked in…
So you're dialing in tones in a band-mix setting?
Yes, that's a bit different and we've always done that. Some players EQ their guitars to sound good alone, but we're a full-time touring band, so things need to sound good in a band setting. It's a key point to making sure things cut through - we've always been about having a nice band mix. Most bands don't design their sound that way, but we take a full-band approach to the mix and have a great sound man that makes it happen. Our other guitar player, Travis Levrier, also uses the Axe-Fx II and we share patches. We use mostly the same patches together and just EQ them a bit to fit his guitar and maybe tweak the gain amounts a little bit.
So what keeps the Axe-Fx in your rig as your guitar processor of choice moving forward?
The Axe-Fx II allows you to bring any sound out there in any genre to your studio or live environment. Anyone who tells me they can't get a good sound out of the Axe-Fx just simply hasn't tried.
What bands are you listening to currently?
My favorite band is The Reign of Kindo. They're a jam/Latin/funk/R&B band on Candyrat Records with all the big acoustic artists. I think they're among the best songwriters out there. We tried to get them on our headlining tour twice, but they're too busy to tour. Another band I've gotten into is Leprous - they have a Devin Townsend-type sound. The new TesseracT record is very good - I like their new singer a lot.
What's next for you and Scale The Summit?
We just played the YESTIVAL in Camden, NJ in August, which was awesome because I grew up listening to Yes. We're touring in October with TesseracT and we're planning to headline some tours next year.
Keep up with Chris on his website, and check out the Scale The Summit online store that contains their merchandise, Chris' excellent guitar instructional books, and full tab books for their albums.